Tony Hsieh, an Internet entrepreneur and former CEO of Zappos, an Amazon company, died from injuries incurred during a house fire when visiting family in Connecticut on November 27, 2020. He was only 46. Needless to say, it was shocking to all of us in Silicon Valley.
Tony’s passing has taken me down a memory lane to the earliest days of the Internet when we were all very young and innocent. Tony, then, only 23, had started work on LinkExchange, an early banner ad-exchange network that launched in early 1996. Sanjay Madan was a co-founder. Ali Partovi joined later. Tony roped in college friend Alfred Lin at LinkExchange, and little did they know how close their lives would be for decades to come. Lin would go on to become the COO of Zappos & is now partner @Sequoia. Incidentally, Sequoia funded LinkExchange with an initial investment of $3 million.
In late 1999, Microsoft bought LinkExchange for $265 million. LinkExchange had some serious Internet talent. Partovi, Tony, Lin, and Scott Banister, for example. They are all stars in their own right. Banister is one of the most successful angel investors. The Partovi Brothers, too are Internet icons.
With winnings from the sale of LinkExchange, Tony and Lin started an incubator called Venture Frogs. If memory serves me right, it was in early 2000. It was also a restaurant, located at 1000 Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco. Tony’s mom Judy ran it. VentureFrogs were investors in many startups. The three most famous ones: Ask Jeeves, OpenTable & Zappos.
Nick Swinmurn started Zappos in 1999, raised $500,000 in funding from Tony & Alfred. It was originally called Shoesite.com Tony later became CEO in 2000. Swinmurn left the company, in 2006. Amazon bought Zappos for $1.2 billion in 2009.
"I believe that getting the culture right is the most important thing a company can do." - Tony Hsieh
I wrote about LinkExchange for Forbes, even though I never met Tony or Alfred till much later in life. My startup was housed in the same office as LinkExchange in SOMA through some strange twist of fate. I later got to know Tony socially through non-tech friends. Quiet, kind, quirky, but always open to the impossible.
With Tony’s passing, I feel something special has ended. I can’t put my finger on it. Maybe a certain innocent aspect of the early possibilities of the Internet. Maybe I feel the contrast of those days to a now that is more mercenary, less friendly, and more polarized. Whatever, without knowing Tony as well as I should, I mourn him deeply.
“Zappos is a customer service company that just happens to sell shoes.” -Tony Hsieh
Tony and Zappos’ biggest achievement was that it showed long before everyone else: you can build an Internet company anywhere. Unlike so many pundits and Twitterati, it didn’t take a pandemic for Tony to have that insight. Zappos was also an example of how tech companies could care about their customers and not treat them as data.
My life’s biggest regret will be not talking to him about him, why holacracy, and, most importantly: why did he call the incubator, Venture Frogs. Every time I drive down 1000 Van Ness, I wonder why: Venture Frogs. Maybe that is why?
November 28, 2020, San Francisco